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Millennials Are Key to Overcoming Partisanship

But while millennials may want to spark change, they still must contend with the legacies of the past.

Rep.Tulsi Gabbard(Kristoffer Tripplaar)

photo of Stephanie Czekalinski
May 21, 2014

The rising millennial generation is changing institutions from businesses to universities across the country. Millennials have arrived in the Halls of Congress as well. There, young members say it's possible that this confident, wired generation is the key to breaking the intense partisanship that has in recent years crippled the federal government and frustrated the public.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, cochair of the Future Caucus, said there is a growing pragmatic undercurrent of cooperation among the youngest congressional leaders. She and fellow cochair Aaron Schock, R-Ill., were the keynote speakers Wednesday at a National Journal and Atlantic event on millennials in Washington,underwritten by Microsoft.

Although members of different parties, Gabbard, 33, and Schock, 32, say they find common ground in a shared generational like-mindedness.


"We are together in a disdain for the status quo—a disdain for processes instead of outcomes," said Schock. "While we may have strong principled views that vary, we also grew up in a society where you don't get everything you want."

As they come of age, millennials face serious economic challenges and feel frustrated with traditional institutions and systems that they believe haven't delivered. Gabbard, Schock, and a number of panelists who participated in the event indicated that this generation, with its affinity for direct action and its willingness to speak its mind, is not likely to wait quietly to make systems and institutions—including Congress—more responsive to their needs.

"We have the opportunity to shift the way things have been done," said Gabbard. "There's a lot of urgency."

Millennials are "not shy about being empowered," said Rich Cooper, a vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who added that, young people are demanding more accessibility and accountability from the institutions they interact with.

"They are collective, collaborative, and cooperative," he said. "The silos that have divided generations, they're interested in going right through those: gender, race, demographics."

But while millennials may want to spark change, they still must contend with the legacies of the past.

"Coming of age in a weak economy after a recession is bad news," said panelist Martha Ross, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. "They've all been hit hard. That can have implications down the road."

Too, the specter of racism haunts the most racially and ethnically diverse generation in American history. Although the number of black and Hispanic young people who go to college has increased, minorities are more likely to attend open-access community colleges while a majority of white students attend the most selective schools, according to a Georgetown University report.

Socially, millennials are more accepting and less racially biased, but American institutions are still racially stratified, said panelist Andrew Hanson of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

Whether millennials will be able to make the changes needed to address the big issues they face is yet to be seen. But be assured, panelists said, that the coming of age of the milliennial generation means change is coming fast.

"This generation has a clock in their head," said panelist Stefanie Brown James, of Vestige Strategies, a public-affairs firm that specializes in reaching communities of color, women, and young people. They're thinking: "My life is limited, and I have very little time to make a change."

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